Is There Any Point in Voting? Yes, There Is

Is there any point in bothering to vote? Tim Harford of the Financial Times says no.

And he is wrong.

As reported in the review of Harford’s book “The Undercover Economist” book on The New York Times:

There’s no point in voting at all, for that matter, as a purely logical act. So if you stayed home that day, relax. If you really want to make a difference, buy lottery tickets — your chances of hitting the jackpot are roughly equal to your chances of swinging an election — and devote your winnings to political lobbying.

And don’t bother to read up on the issues, either. “Because the chance of any individual’s vote making any difference to the result is tiny, the benefits of turning an uninformed vote into an informed vote are also tiny,” Mr. Harford writes. “Rationally speaking, why bother?

To know more about the wisdom behind those statements, visit Tim Harford’s own website, in particular “Your vote doesn’t count“, published on the 10th of November, 2007:

Notoriously, an individual’s vote makes no difference to anything. According to the British election watcher David Boothroyd, in 24 general elections since 1918, each spanning hundreds of parliamentary constituencies (most recently, 646), there has only ever been one valid election where your vote could have made a difference

I find such a reasoning rather underwhelming.

Elections are not made by individual voters, but by the behaviour of many individual voters: and that is what counts when thinking about “making a difference“.

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So on the subject of going to vote or not: imagine (a) the majority of people think the way you do.

If you decide (a.1) to vote then, you know the majority of people will think the same, and will go to vote. Under those circumstances, people that don’t vote are in the minority and it makes little sense to join them: voting is the logical choice.

If you decide (a.2) not to vote, you know the majority of people will not go to vote either. But that means the opinions of whoever goes to vote carry a larger weight than usual: voting is, once again, the logical choice.

Imagine now (b) the majority of people do not think the way you do. If you decide (b.1) to vote, you know the majority of people will not go to vote. All more the reason to go to the polls: voting is, for the third time, the logical choice.

Finally if you decide (b.2) not to vote, the majority of people will vote. Obviously, instead of getting stuck with the idle minority, it will make sense to join the majority: and so voting is… the logical choice.

Voting is always the logical choice: independently from the “difference” a single vote could or could not make.

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The above is freely inspired by Douglas Hofstadter’s “Metamagical Themas: Questing the Essence of Mind and Pattern“, a marvelous collection of Scientific American essays where the renowned author of “Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” investigates (in the last section “Sanity & Survival“) some non-immediately-obvious ways of solving cooperation dilemmas.

One only wishes Tim “Undercover Economist” Harford had read under the cover of Hofstadter’s book and expanded his own reasoning to include… reason,  instead of limiting himself, in true economic form, to the mere numbers of an election.

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There is one possibility left aside: so-called “voters’ strike”, where people decide to protest en masse hoping their absence will be noted. In this case, there are two potential outcomes: (c) few people participate and (d) many, many people refuse to vote.

Under (c) the strike is a failure, so voting make more sense. And under (d), since very few people vote, it’s definitely time to do it (as in a.2 and b.1 above).

There is no escape to the fact that voting is, from a logical point of view, the only option.